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Chinese Women’s Clothing and Body Revolution, Part 5 Chapter 1 (Part 1)

March 20, 2011

Chinese Women’s Clothing and Body Revolution (中国妇女服饰与身体革命)
By: Wu Hao (吴昊)
Section: “Women’s Liberation Begins with the Breasts” (妇女解放先从乳房开始)

This is part one of two about this chapter. This part focuses on Guangzhou and Zhu Jiahua’s breast-binding ban in Guangdong in 1927. I previously posted about another section of this book here, but I used the chapter from the Hong Kong version of Wu’s book, titled Fairy Clothes in Cosmopolitan Cities (都会雲裳.) I found the Mainland Chinese translation a little while back at a book store in a subway station (!) and I am finally writing about the chapter about the natural breast movement (Part 5, Chapter 1.)

On July 7, 1927 at a Guangdong government committee meeting, Zhu Jiahua (朱家骅,) a government official in Guangzhou, brought up a resolution to ban breast-binding (“禁革妇女束胸.”) Wu Hao argues that this is when the natural breast movement (天乳运动 tian ru yun dong) began, although many of the sources I have read were written before 1927. Zhu Jiahua, in his reasoning for his proposal to ban breast-binding, argues that there are two “bad habits” (陋习 lou xi) that ruin (摧残 cui can) the bodies of Chinese women: footbinding, which was banned over twenty years ago, and breast-binding. Zhu argues that breast-binding is much worse than footbinding because it can cause women to faint (厥 jue.) According to Zhu, footbinding only affects the feet and mobility but breast-binding makes the whole body weak. Breast-binding hurts the heart, the waist, the lungs, and the stomach and thus breathing and blood circulation. It blocks the body’s development, it makes women frail (孱 chan) and thin (羸 lei,) and it negatively impacts children.

I can kind of see through Zhu’s concerns about women’s health since the overwhelming majority of articles about breast-binding eventually talk about race, children, and nationalism. Zhu’s ban on breast-binding is no exception. Zhu’s ban said that if a woman had not stopped breast-binding three months after the ban was imposed she would be charged with a fine of 50 yuan. If the girl was under 20 years old, her whole family would be fined so that the family would be “mutually vigilant” (互相警惕 hu xiang jing ti.) Zhu promises that this ban will eradicate this “bad practice” from Guangdong and then the whole nation. The ban is “not specifically for the happiness of women but actually for the spirit of nationalism and to strengthen our race and our country” (194). Nationalism once again is the driving force behind the discussion of breast-binding. The state becomes defined in terms of how “modern” women’s bodies are and women and their “liberation” are symbols of social and political progress.

Health has come up again and again as a reason to stop breast-binding. Articles against breast-binding appeared in publications geared towards women and national general interest/news publications and they also appeared in health and medicine (“new medicine”) publications as well. But who was the audience for these medical publications? I can’t imagine that too many women were reading things like Kwang Chi Medical Journal (here) or New Medicine and Society (here.)

Thus, how was this information about health transmitted to women? Wu mentions that the illustrator for Wan Xianggezhu’s articles in Beiyang Huabao (my old trusted friend) about breast-binding, Li Jun (丽君,) was a woman. Both Wan and Li were women and Wu argues that from their perspective as women they were providing women with essential knowledge about their bodies. I think this is an interesting point since Wan’s articles are far and away the most sensitive articles on breast-binding from the period. Not only did Wan talk about the practice but she also published illustrations and descriptions of the history of undergarments and new Western undergarments. Wu Hao editorializes and claims that the import of Western modern brassieres (胸围 xiong wei) which was brought about by Wan’s articles in Beiyang Huabao, strongly influenced Chinese women to “break away from the oppression of the little vest” (摆脱小马甲的迫压 bai tuo xiao ma jia de po ya) (195). But I personally am not sure how true that statement is since the impression I have is that the bra was not as quickly accepted by Chinese women as it was by American and European women. In Antonia Finnane’s Changing Clothes in China: Fashion, Nation, History, Finnane mentions a 1937 advertisement found in Jilian huikan that shows two women discussing undergarments. The older one asks the younger why she isn’t wearing a vest and the younger one says that she thinks vests are bad for one’s health, so she prefers to wear a cotton shirt (Finnane 164). If bras weren’t being popularly advertised or worn by the late 1930s, a full ten years after the style was introduced in Beiyang Huabao, then I think it is very debatable whether or not the bra was “liberating” Chinese women.

This brings me to another issue: how was information about clothing and the body transmitted between women and did this change with the rise of advertising and periodicals? Did mothers and sisters teach young women or, with the rise of girls schools, did girls talk about these things with each other? How did women choose which garments they wore: friends? advertisements? their female family members?

An August 11, 1927 article from the Shanghai version of Minguo Ribao provides some insight into how information exchanges between women were perceived by male leaders. The article also urged banning breast-binding and targeting female students was its first suggestion for implementing such a ban. “The first method is to mandate, through political party/faction or administration authorities, that every principal of women’s schools strictly forbids students from breast-binding and if there are violations issue a demerit for the first offense through an investigation, and repeat offenders would be treated with severe disciplinary action on the part of the school; society will naturally shift along with a change in the established practice of schools ” (196). In the eyes of male leaders and anti-breast binding advocates, women’s schools were the hotbed of breast-binding. These were spaces were young women were in constant contact with one another. Through forcing female school teachers and principals to investigate their female students, a regime of women policing each other and their bodies emerged. The belief was that women were to blame for breast-binding and it was their responsibility to ensure that it ended. As I have said before, I think this anxiety about women’s schools reveals an anxiety about the changing status and roles of women.

But why did breast-binding even exist? Wu provides several textual sources from the time which attempt to answer that question:

The first source is Zhou Jianren (周建人,) who also wrote extensively about eugenics. He wrote an article in September 1926 in the publication 一般 (yi ban, A Class which I believe he was the editor of) titled, “A few sentences about sexual history” (关于性史的几句话 guan yu xing shi de ji ju hua.) In it, he discusses the conflict between conservative morals and nude paintings in Chinese society. He writes, “In this kind of sex sensitive society, women bind their breasts to the point of abnormality, thin and flat like the preserved salted duck of the Jin Mausoleum,” (191).

In December 1926, “sex doctor” (性学博士) Zhang Jingsheng (张竞生,) who also referred to himself as “The number one opponent of breast-binding in China” (中国第一人反对压奶最力者 zhong guo di yi ren fan dui ya nai zui li zhe,) wrote an article in New Culture (新文化 xin wen hua), “Research on Nudity” (课体研究 luo ti yan jiu.) Zhang emphasizes that flat chests do not arouse men and that breast-binding reflects the ugliness of rites culture/traditional culture. He writes, “To use narrow clothing to oppress the beauty of the breasts (奶部 nai bu,) to bind them flat until they are considered beautiful! This makes women into men, and it makes men unable to see breasts and feel desire…this isn’t just ugly, it isn’t hygienic, women can’t breathe and then they get lung diseases and die…to press down breasts (奶 nai) makes the body unable to produce breast milk, which affects children and the race” (192).

Three months later, Wang Shilin (王世霖) wrote an article in a Beijing based publication, Chenbao Fujian (晨报副镌) simply titled “Breast-binding” (束胸 shu xiong.) Wang takes a much more practical stance on the natural breast issue and says that it is not easy to change the longstanding idea that breasts are ugly. This idea must slowly change and the first step is to make clothing looser (宽大 kuan da.) If clothes are loose, Wang argues, the breasts (两乳 liang ru) won’t protrude (凸 tu) and women will not be ashamed of their breasts.

As you can see, the overwhelming reason given for the continued practice of breast-binding is conservative culture/morals. In the eyes of these writers, traditional Chinese culture told women that breasts are bad but in fact, breasts are beautiful and important for the health of women and children. Of course, what is ignored in their writings is that breast-centric sexuality was a very Western view. Women and children had survived just fine for thousands of years but it was only when the Western gaze was placed on China did an anxiety begin about the female body and the beauty of curves. Zhang’s argument that flat breasts did not arouse men is one that doesn’t stand up (no pun intended here) when one looks at Late Imperial erotic art and erotic literature. Erotic art places an emphasis on detailed genitalia, not large breasts.

To end breast-binding, these men suggested that women must finally realize that female curves are beautiful and that curvy bodies, meaning bodies with ample breasts and butts, are the ideal of female beauty. What is most interesting to me is Zhang Jingsheng’s point that breast-binding erased gender distinction. In some of the sources I have read there is a suggestion that women bound their breasts during the Republican period (especially after May Fourth) to erase gender difference and make themselves look less like women. This is an interesting point but it isn’t one that I completely believe since breast-binding supposedly existed way before the May Fourth period. If anything, isn’t breast-binding a marker of female difference? It is a bodily practice only for women, in particular women of a certain class. An idea I have is that with the end of footbinding in the early 20th century, the markers of female difference began to fade and this caused anxiety. Women of course still looked like women but now they emerged into the public sphere, a realm that previously only belonged to men. With the end of footbinding, there was no longer anything to say that women weren’t capable or that they belonged in the home. The spheres of inner and outer were converging. By emphasizing breasts and changing the terminology for breasts from chest to milk chamber, male reformers placed women within the home (or at least below men) as mothers and caregivers. The change in beauty ideals also contributed to this view of women as mothers – large breasts and curves were a symbol of fertility whereas pre-Republican femininity was much more delicate and poetic.

So what did these male scholars actually say about large breasts? Wu cites a few different examples:

In an article in Minguo Ribao (民国日报 – 上海) from August 10, 1927, the literary scholar and reformer Hu Shi is mentioned as a leading advocate of natural breasts. The article says that Hu Shi spoke at a girl’s private school graduation ceremony about the issue and the next day published an article in Jing Bao (晶报) advocating “large breast-ism” (大奶奶主义 da nai nai zhu yi.) Hu told the author of the article that today’s female students in China were not qualified to be mothers because of breast-binding and that this was a big problem for the race.

Zhang Jingsheng also furthered the “large breast-ism” or “large breast thought” idea (大奶奶主义 da nai nai zhu yi) in articles in New Culture (新文化 xin wen hua.) In an article titled Sexual Beauty, Zhang writes “The development (发达 fa da) of breasts (奶部,) as well as the development (发展 fa zhan) of the chest (胸部 xiong bu,) make the two nipples (奶头 nai tou) rise high and erect on the soft chest (酥胸 su xiong,) a posture that pushes the chest forward and a butt that sticks out make up the curves of the female body, this is the beauty of the female sex” (194). He continues, “If female Yin essence (女阴) is undeveloped, it directly causes the butt bones to not become wide and thus the butt is narrow and small, thin and harmful. Indirectly, on top of making the breasts and chest undeveloped, underneath it makes the feet and legs unhealthy and not robust. When walking, the legs aren’t nimble and strong, the butt does not become rippled (波纹形 bo wen xing) and the chest doesn’t protrude out, thus the condition of our women’s step is not the same as our men’s. You can say that it is slower and heavier than men’s steps, slow and heavy lacks lively gender which is equal to ‘a walking corpse’ (行尸走肉 xing shi zou rou)” (194-5).

An August 12, 1927 section in Guangdong Minguo Ribao, “To observe my life” (观我生 guan wo sheng – could be a wrong translation!) stated, “The human body is truly beautiful. If the curves are plentiful and prosperous (丰隆 feng long,) if the color and luster are smooth (色泽光润 se ze guang run) and the posture slender, this is considered true beauty. However, curves generally consist of three big parts: facial curves, breast curves, and butt curves” (196). Additionally, “Breasts must be plentiful, prosperous, and protruding to be considered beautiful, therefore Western style women bind the waist to dress up the breasts in order to be sure the curves of their breasts are plentiful and prosperous” (196).

Wei Pei, in a 1928 Guangzhou Minguo Ribao article titled “I also talk about women’s beauty” (我也谈谈女性美 wo ye tan tan nv xing mei,) wrote, “If one wants a thin waist and a large rear (腰细臀大 yao xi tun da,) the breasts must be able to fully develop. Thus those who want a thin waist and a large rear do so because only when the waist is thin and the rear large then can one have the beauty of curves, then can one have a slender posture. Breasts (乳部 ru fang) thus must fully develop because only when the two breasts are fully developed can the chest (胸部 xiong bu) be good looking, prosperous, and pretty (可爱 ke ai)” (196).

Small waist, large butt, and large breasts…sound familiar? These are distinctly un-Chinese (at least Imperial Chinese) ideals of beauty and very, very “Western.” As I have written before, the belief that big breasts were “vulgar” or low class persisted even after people like Zhou Jianren, Zhang Jingsheng, and the many others quoted above offered their critiques and emphasized the beauty of curves. Illustrations and advertisements from the period show ample bosoms but big breasts IRL (“in real life”) were still shameful. The most important sign of this is the lack of Chinese nude photographs in the 1920s. Every day, publications in Guangzhou and other coastal cities published articles preaching the beauty of female curves and every day nude photos were published, but of Western women only. Another interesting aspect to the discussion of curves and the female body is the breakdown of public and private. The breakdown of public and private amplifies criticism and judgment of the female body, like Zhu Jiahua’s idea to make the whole family “mutually vigilant” about the body of its daughter. This breakdown can of course be seen in the intrusion into the personal belongings and practices of female students during school breast-binding inspections. More importantly, for the first time the nitty gritty details of female anatomy were being discussed openly in the public sphere with detail. Men felt the freedom to very explicitly talk about the joys of large breasts and rippling butts but where were women’s voices and thoughts on the matter?

Lastly, an article that Wu quotes that I found very interesting was an essay by Jiang Xue (绛雪) called “Measuring Breast Height” (量胸高 liang xiong gao,) which was published in Guangzhou Minguo Ribao on January 11, 1928. In it, Jiang describes going to a tailor’s shop and seeing the tailor measure “breast height” (胸高xiong gao) for the first time. The tailor tells Jiang that the clothes are fit to the individual body and if the breast measurements are right, then what you wear will look very beautiful. Even at the beginning of mass production, individualized clothing still exists. More importantly, the idea that clothing can create illusions and add to the body is one that is very interesting to me. If a woman has a correctly measured dress, her breasts and body can look very beautiful, regardless of what her “natural” body looks like. Or something like that?

4 Comments leave one →
  1. March 12, 2012 5:34 pm

    Is it fine to insert part of this in my personal weblog if I publish a reference point to this webpage?

    • March 13, 2012 7:44 am

      Hi Alaine,

      You can quote from this on your blog but please quote and cite accurately with a link to this blog. And link me to the post!


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